Review by E. Kirshe
The Sisters Grimm is a new fantasy novel by Menna Van Praag. The entirety is told through the point of view narration of five protagonists, the four sisters; Goldie, Liyana, Scarlet and Bea, and Leo, a sort of spiritual brother to them, who must also kill one of them.
I’ll start with a few positives so the reader can make their own decisions. The characters are diverse, that’s nice. They all come from different ethnic and class backgrounds, Liyana’s relationship with her girlfriend was cute. The otherworld (spirit world? Hell?) of Everwhere was nicely described. There’s a lot of nice language.
Now for the downsides.
The main word I would use to describe this book is “unclear”.
I couldn’t tell who the audience for this book was, I believe it’s YA but much of the language read like it could have been for children. However, I can’t recommned it for kids due to the R-rated action (including what did turn out to be literal not spiritual incest, attempted rape, child rape, and self harm among others things).
The sisters are daughters of a demon? (the Devil?) whose last name is Grimm, I don’t know why. The fairytale angle continues with each girl being an analogue for a different fairytale character and also associated with an element (Scarlet is Red Riding Hood and also has an affinity for fire that I suspect is supposed to be a spiritual connection, but comes off as her being a pyromaniac).
Most of the sister’s interactions happen in flashbacks when they are 7 years old magically meeting in their dreams in Everwhere. When they were 13, they forgot about these visits so they spend most of the plot not knowing the others at all.
The whole book is a countdown to their shared 18th birthday, but over 400 pages there isn’t the kind of urgency you’re supposed to get out of it. The reader is told there will be a fight to the death on that day- but not one of the sisters is aware of this for the majority of the book. Most status quo changes happen within the last 60 pages or so. There’s very little addition to the ongoing personal dramas (which are mainly very involved family and financial struggles) we’re introduced to- despite being the majority of the plot. Goldie and Scarlet’s financial problems and their inability to take care of family doesn’t change much from beginning to end. Bea seems to be a sociopath but this isn’t meaningfully explored and her later emotional turmoil results in angst not change. Liyanna has the most well-drawn story but it stops short when we get near the climax, which, again, was not built up since they don’t know it’s coming.
At best the story reads like a fable, but even with the fairytale angle the very detailed personal dramas make that unworkable. There are only generic concepts of Good and Evil; however, this is a story where they really needed some definition.
On the sisters’ birthday, they will have to kill or be killed by one of demon dad’s soliders (who are his ‘sons’ but also stars from the sky so I think spiritual sons oh god I hope so or there’s more incest than I thought). After the death test they will have to choose Good or Evil. If they choose Good, dad kills them.
This rite of passage is to give them a taste for blood if they win-thus turning them towards Evil. Because, as everyone will tell you, killing in self-defense a person (or star) who will definitely murder you makes you super evil (this is sarcasm). This is why I’m against leaving the concepts vague as my definitions seem to be different from Praag’s.
Also, all of the soldiers that they must kill (or die by), are also men from their real lives who have attached themselves to one of the sisters. They must kill their men then face their father. Take that as you will.
The best overview of these concepts is in the rewritten fairy tales that appear throughout the book. These more strongly illustrate Praag’s notions of Good and Evil, which are based wholly on living for yourself instead of surrendering to meekness, or other’s desires. “So, instead of spending her days seeking loving smiles and approving looks, she sought other satisfactions. She dressed exotically and sang badly and danced wildly. She pleased herself in every way and, for the first time in her life, knew pure happiness and true joy.” This is from Praag’s Goldielocks story.
This whole book is supposed to be about young girls about to become women finding their own strength and coming into their own. This is a great thing to write about. In fact, this is a book full of good ideas, I’ve spent a while unpacking them; unfortunately, it falls short of meaningfully resolving any of them.